An interview with English professor Gregory Schwipps, former student and faculty

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Greg Schwipps
Greg Schwipps

TDP: How long have you been at DePauw?

Greg Schwipps: I came as a student in the fall of ‘91, graduated in ‘95, went to graduate school at Southern Illinois at Carbondale, and came back and started teaching in the fall of ‘98. And since then I’ve been teaching in the English Department.

TDP: What are some of your favorite classes to teach in the department? The ones you look forward to when the academic year starts?

GS: I just walked out of Intro to Creative Writing–I’ve probably taught that class twenty times–and that class never disappoints. Of course, you have a different group of students every semester and a different group dynamic, but I love that class–I have always enjoyed teaching that class and I have a great group this semester. And I always laugh in that classroom because I always enjoy being in that room with those students and watching them figure out how to write poems and how to write short stories. I love workshopping short stories. On the other end of the spectrum, I teach senior seminar and that’s a lot of work, emotionally draining, takes a lot of workshop energy, and lot of those projects are one hundred or two hundred pages long.

TDP: That’s definitely a lot of work.

GS: It is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work for the students, it’s a lot of work for me, but some of those students are students that I’ve had either for first year seminar or Intro to Creative Writing so to work again with them as seniors and to see them put together projects is very rewarding. And it’s just a lot of fun, as much work as it is. So I love that senior seminar–I can only do it about every other year.

TDP) You mentioned you taught some current students back in their first-year seminars. Do you enjoy teaching first year seminars?

GS) Absolutely. Working with purely first year students is rewarding. Those students are not jaded at all, they’re just eager, and spirited, and those are some of my favorite DePauw students. To see students get excited about what college can be and who they can be in college is a great thing.

TDP: I’d imagine teaching those students reminds you a lot about your time here as a student. Looking back on your experience, what were some of the standout moments for you as a student here?

GS: Well, I was an energetic student and I was a student who paid attention. I had some great classes with Barbara Bean whose office we’re in right now. I also took some great classes with Tom Chiarella and David Field, and I paid attention and kind of studied them as teachers and was constantly thinking how would I teach this class if I were a professor. Now, having said that, I was not a good writer or a good student. I just had this moment in my intro class where I was telling them about the short story I wrote called “Blood Creek” and we were all laughing about it because it was such a bad short story–overwritten and melodramatic–and it was just terrible. So I was almost silent as a student, and that’s the biggest thing. Even as a senior seminar student–I was in Tom Chiarella’s class–I was told I was really working hard and that [Tom] wanted to give me an A, but that he couldn’t because he couldn’t give an A to a student who never said anything.

TDP) I noticed your Beta paddle so I have to ask–how that Greek experience was for you?

GS) It was great–I had great friends who lived in the Beta house with me and we made great memories there. I will say this: we didn’t have after-hour study spaces so I wrote my entire senior seminar project perched on a barstool at a homemade bar, and guys were constantly coming in and out. All in all, I loved my time at Beta, but I do look back on it and wonder how much more I could have developed as a writer if I had been somewhere quieter.

TDP) Now as a professor, here, what interesting projects do you feel DePauw has enabled you to do? Because you’ve published a book, and that’s one thing that stands out for sure.

GS) I have what’s called a faculty fellowship, and what that does is gives me a course off every year for the next three years. I have two kids now who are six and four, and I’m essentially researching the role of nature in kids’ lives and how we introduce kids to nature, specifically how I’m introducing my kids to nature. DePauw is giving me that time to write nonfiction about the boys and what they’re doing with animals and fishing and being outside. It’s a departure for me in a sense because my novel is certainly about nature, but it’s a novel and it’s fiction, and I wrote that when I was childless. So DePauw through their professional development program is letting me do that and that’s a great thing. In terms of my teaching, I’d always taught a first year seminar about creative nonfiction writing that introduced first-year students to Putnam County and made them write about Putnam County. This last year, I co-taught a first-year seminar with Cindy O’Dell in the Art Department–I had never co-taught a class before–and I would make the students write a piece about a Putnam County resident, so someone not connected to DePauw. And then Cindy would teach a portrait component of that same assignment. So we’d workshop the profile and then put up the portrait that the students had taken of this same subject. It was so cool.

TDP) What advice would you have for current students? It could be first-year students or students graduating, or maybe students who are quiet in the classroom like you mentioned earlier.

GS) Well, they have to make real connections. And they don’t need twenty-five connections. As faculty we sometimes roll our eyes when we get emails from students who put all their credentials in their emails to us. It’s fine and they’ll say they’ve gotten advice to be involved and they’re going to put all of it in the signature to prove that they’re involved, but if those aren’t genuine, authentic connections to people, then you have wasted your time with essentially busy work. You’re just out there and you’re trying to find stuff that you can list in your signature. What you want to do instead is make a real connection–someone who can write you an authentic recommendation letter and teach you how something works. And that person may be someone connected to DePauw, but it could also be someone in the community. There are people here who know stuff and there are so many students who run around trying to check boxes. They do that for four years and then they leave and haven’t made a genuine connection to anyone.

TDP) It’s sad.

GS) It is sad. It’s counterproductive. And if I did one thing right while I was here, I made a few genuine connections to a handful of people, and one of them was Tom Chiarella. He was my teacher and advisor, and, when I was in graduate school, he became the chair of the English Department and hired me to do this job. I didn’t need to be involved in fifteen clubs, but I needed to be connected to Tom. Do a few things well, make a few authentic connections, and find out the thing you are most excited about and connect with those people, and you’ll be alright.